Chris Celletti
How To Build Better Agency-Client Relationships

The past couple of decades have seen seismic change that has reshaped how companies market to consumers. By default, that has also changed how marketers work with agencies. Has it changed for the better? The new book How To Buy A Gorilla: Getting the Right Muscle Behind Your Advertising Efforts by consultant David Meikle presents his steps for an improved, more trusting way for stakeholders in marketing to work together. David sat down with us to talk about the book, the benefits of those more trusting relationships, and what the successful agency of the future will look like. What was your main goal in writing How to Buy A Gorilla?

David Meikle: Part of me had this quixotic vision of transforming the agency-client relationship all over the world just to make the world a better place, but that’s naïve. Actually, what How To Buy a Gorilla is about is, I believe that if advertisers follow a set of principles that I’ve set out that it will get them greater competitive advantage. I’ve written down a whole bunch of ideas and models that will give them that competitive advantage. But essentially for me, as a consultant, it’s a very expensive 320-page business card to say there is another way of doing things, and it has this level of integrity. So if you want to change your fortunes as a brand, then I can help you do it. What are the main changes in the industry that you’ve seen over the past few decades that have affected relationships the most?

DM: There are lots of things that have changed. Agency revenues have fallen, but agencies’ costs have fallen as well. When I began 30 years ago, I had a secretary type up my contact reports. Now we don’t have contact reports, we have email, and we don’t have secretaries because I type them myself. So costs have shrunk, but at the same time, I think each of the markets that advertising is working in have experienced a number of recessions, and when you hit a recession, then people are looking for efficiencies and are looking for cuts. But the thing is, when they’ve made those cuts and made those efficiencies, they haven’t then said, well, the recession is over, so let’s go back to where we were 6 months ago. That doesn’t happen. So we’ve all tightened ourselves in knots. And because those knots have then become formalized procedures and processes and principles, we have lost the vision to a great degree about what advertising in its broadest sense, what marketing communications can do for a brand, why it is necessary to invest, why it is necessary to innovate, and what that can do to create competitive advantage. And we need to get back to that kind of dialogue and how advertising and marketing communications solve business problems. We need to get back to that fundamental level of discussion rather than a ceremonial repetition of process which seems to be where we are in terms of how agencies are paid and how clients manage agencies. What types of sacrifices do both the agency and client have to make to ensure the relationship remains strong?

DM: Marketers are under a lot of pressure from their boards to deliver more for the same investment. And at the same time, they have standards and conditions imposed upon them to say, not only do you have to jump higher, but you have to jump higher with these weights on your feet. So agencies have to help marketers say to their stakeholders, if you want us to be responsible for delivering greater return on your investment than we currently do, you have to take the weights off. You have got to let us do what we can do. You can’t give us responsibility without control, and one of those controls is procurement—to say this is how you have to select, this is how you have to search. And it’s a similar kind of principle with marketing – if you want me to do what it is that I’ve got to do, you’ve got to give me the freedom to do it. And agencies have to help marketers construct that argument. But the whole dialogue is wrong because we’ve all just accepted a set of emergent conditions and we’re not questioning the environment that we’ve created around ourselves, and that’s what we need to do. What does the successful agency of the future look like?

DM: Above anything else, it has to have a strong employer brand. It has to be a place that talent wants to work. Because without talent, everything else is academic. I don’t think the agency of the future is going to be some AI – put your brief in this slot here and out will come a 30-second TV commercial. I believe that the successful agencies of the future have to be more challenging to their clients. They’ve got to be the ones that stand up to their clients and say, this is the nature of your problem, this is the nature of your risk profile for this brand, these are the threats that you’re under, and therefore this is what you have to do. But if you do not want to do that, if you want to go down a risk-averse approach, we will not be accountable for the results of this because of the condition you impose on us. So there is a future for agencies that are brave. These days we’re seeing more and more media companies working directly with brands to produce content. How will that disrupt traditional agencies?

DM: So the agency world began with media agencies saying, I’ll sell this space for the media owners, and then when I sell this space I can make you something to go in that space and make that space more effective. If media owners are now saying we’re gonna go back to that model, there’s a really good reason that the first model emerged. In terms of the development of content, there are a lot of mistakes being made, I think, in terms of content versus digital versus traditional advertising. There are a lot of marketers running off the new shiny things rather than getting back to the basics. Everyone in behavioral science, in marketing academia with any sense knows that broadcast advertising is the main driver. Yes it changes, yes it evolves, but there’s too much done and too much emphasis on the nice-to-haves, what I would call gravy to the steak, rather than the steak. And it’s been at the expense of the steak. Who is the ideal audience for the book? And what is the key message you’d like that audience to take with them?

DM: I’ve had procurement people read this book and say it’s a fantastic procurement book. I’ve had marketing people read the book and say it’s a fantastic marketing book. And I’ve had agency people read the book and say it’s a fantastic agency book. The hardest audience, the audience that I really want to read the book is the CEOs. To say, you are sitting on billions of dollars of asset that is being wasted on mediocrity when your business problem demands something braver and something which has been proved to give you a better return on investment. My instinct is that if I can get this thing into the hands of enough CMOs, agency CEOs, and chief procurement officers who are prepared to think a bit differently, then there is a viable future for some brands to have a great competitive difference. All we need is a few more case studies and I think people will come around to seeing there is better way forward than a distrusting, defensive, protective, aggressive way of working to a constructive, productive, creative way of working.

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